Last month I wrote a series of articles concerning Sam Harris' speech at TED on the possibility of a science of morality.(See Sam Harris' Presentation Science Can Answer Moral Questions)
I was not the only one to offer criticism of Sam Harris' comments. So, to compliment the points that I raised, I would like to say some things about the points that others have raised. Specifically, I would like to address the points raised by Sean Carroll.(See Sean Carroll The Moral Equivalent of the Parallel Postulate.)
Harris asserted that the concern of morality is with the well-being of conscious creatures. Furthermore, we can tell, just by looking at the world, that there is obviously greater well-being in some parts of the world than others. He takes the well-being of conscious creatures to be an objective fact that we can study and come up with scientific truths about. These are not just scientific truths about how to obtain the well-being of conscious creatures, but scientific truths about the well-being of conscious creatures itself.
I would like to start by giving my take on Sam Harris' argument. As I see it, Harris' argument is much like the following:
Yes, we can have a science of physical matter. After all, every object in the universe is made up of a mixture of the four elements - earth, air, fire, and water. These elements are made up of atoms, which are extremely small pieces of an element which themselves have no parts. Now, we can have an objective science of the atoms of the four elements. Therefore, we can have a science of physical matter.
In other words, what Harris got right was his claim that we can have a science of morality. What he got wrong was his specific claims about the nature of the subject that we are studying scientifically.
The reason that this is important is because some of the criticisms that Harris has had to put up with commit a clear fallacy. They have attacked the specifics of Sam Harris' theory and then asserted that this disproves his claim that we can have a science of morality.
This is as fallacious as taking objections to the theory of matter included in my analogy to Harris's argument and taking that as proof that we cannot, in fact, have a science of physical matter. "Your theory fails, so a theory of physical matter is not possible."
It does not fail, so long as there are other theories that are out there. What the person raising this objection needs is not to find problems with Harris' specific theory, but some reason to believe that no theory is possible.
Carroll appeals to David Hume to provide that argument.
There is an old saying going back to David Hume that says that you cannot derive an ought from an is. And Hume was right! You can't derive an ought from an is! Yet people keep on trying.
Show me an argument that proves that you cannot derive an 'ought' from an 'is'. Hume gives us no argument. Hume gives us a fallacy. He gives as an "argument from ignorance". He says, I don't know how to do it; therefore, it cannot be done." Yet, it is a bit like saying that I cannot figure out the volume of an irregular solid; therefore, it cannot be done. Or, I cannot calculate the orbital mechanics necessary to get a spaceship from the Earth to the Moon; therefore, it cannot be done.
Here is Hume's often quoted paragraph:
In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remark'd, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary ways of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when all of a sudden I am surpriz'd to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, 'tis necessary that it shou'd be observ'd and explain'd; and at the same time that a reason should be given; for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it.
There is nothing in here but an argument from ignorance.
It is as if we have introduced a new principle of logic that says:
• X is inconceivable to Hume.
• Therefore, not-X
Since this ill-fated paragraph was written, people have used it as an excuse for closing their minds to any discussion of real-world 'ought'. As soon as somebody starts talking about 'ought' as something in the real world, they shut their minds, shout "You can't do that", and point to Hume's argument from ignorance as proof.
It is as bad as any religion.
If there is an actual proof - something other than Hume's fallacy - I would like to know what it is.
There is an argument against accepting Hume's claim or, more precisely, concluding that what Hume finds to be inconceivable can somehow be done.
It has to do with all of the questions that surround the alternative.
If you believe that 'ought' cannot be derived from 'is', then I have a question for you. Do 'ought' statements have any relevance in the world of physical matter?
Is an 'ought' relationship - whatever it is - ever in any way a part of the explanation for, for example, the movement of atoms through space and time? Has it, for example, ever influenced a human action or been a part of explaining why a person did something or refrained from doing something else?
If the answer is "yes" then you are telling me that something that is completely divorced from what "is" - that is completely separate from it - has the power to influence the movement of matter through space-time.
How does that happen?
Now that you have told me what an ought-relationship is not - that it is not derived from 'is' - can you please tell me what this 'ought-relationship' is? And, in giving me this explanation, include an account of how 'ought' has the power to effect the movement of objects in the real world?
In fact, if we divorce 'ought' from 'is', can we even make sense of the question: "What 'is' an ought relationship?"
This is how Hume's so-called law shuts down the brain. If we accept it, not only can we not get answers to any questions, we cannot even form questions to ask. We have placed 'ought' outside of all intelligible conversation.
If the answer is "no", then my question to you is, "Why are we still talking about it?" If ought-relationships have no impact on the real world - if it has no explanation to offer as to why matter moves in a particular way - if it has no influence on any intentional action at any time - then why speak about it at all as if it has real-world relevance?
In any discussion of any real-world issue, anybody who brings up an ought-relationship as if it is relevant to the discussion can be hereby dismissed as speaking nonsense. It is as senseless as bringing up God or ghosts or any other imaginary entity that, because it is imaginary, can never have relevance to that which is real
So, this is my answer to those who say, "And Hume was right!"
If Hume was right, then explain to me how this 'ought-relationship' you are talking about has relevance in the real world? How can an 'ought' distinct and separate from 'is' have any relevance to what is?
Or, in other words, if you cannot derive 'ought' from 'is', then is it not also the case that you cannot derive 'is' from 'ought'?
Or, my common way of expressing this problem:
There is no mutually exclusive is-ought distinction. There is an is-is not distinction. Ought either needs to find a home in the world of what 'is', or we need to put 'ought' in the realm of what is not
Having said this, Harris is still wrong when he says that morality has to do exclusively with the well-being of conscious creatures. He is going to struggle to defend his claim that moral ought resides as a property in the well-being of conscious creatures - because it does not. However, Harris is wrong as a matter of fact, not because of the impossibility of deriving fact from value.
For the record, I hold that the 'ought' relationship is a relationship between states of affairs and desires, and that 'moral ought' is a relationship between malleable desires other desires. A virtue is a malleable desire that tends to fulfill other desires, while a 'vice' (using the term in its classical sense) is a malleable desire that tends to thwart other desires.
However, it doesn't follow from the fact that Harris made a mistake about what 'ought' is that 'ought' cannot be derived from 'is'. You might as well say that because the ancient Greeks were wrong about atoms that there can be no science of chemistry.
We need to find a theory that actually works - even if it turns out to be one that Hume could not have conceived.